February 14, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
The Winter Olympics kicked off last week and in one of the early events, women’s snowboarder, Julia Marino, was in first place ready to win gold until the last competitor from New Zealand took it away with a final landing. When she did, Marino and the third place finisher from Australia, did this…(picture)
Now think about that image. These are fierce competitors. They had been working for this event most of their lives. They were from opposing countries, and one woman just took medals away from the other two, but the two celebrated with the winner! They celebrated their opponents.
Celebrating the gifts of people who are opposite us is an indispensable quality in life.
Last Sunday Pastor Jevon kicked off a new series looking at the Indispensable relationships. He began looking at encouragement. We all need encouragers, but this week we go in the opposite direction, literally. We think about our need for people who are opposite our gifts and traits.
I know this sounds like a terrible choice of topic on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day unless you think of the conversation between the Romantic and the Realist. The Romantic argued that marriages are made in heaven. And the Realist said, “And so are thunder and lightning.”
As the old saying goes, “Opposites attract…and eventually they attack.” We are talking today about a relationship quality we all need, but one that brings the highest potential for conflict: people who offer opposite characteristics from our own.
We are all incomplete people. We have certain dominant traits. Some are thinkers. Some are relaters. Some are processors. Some are risk takers. Some are harmonizers. Some are delegators. But none of us is a perfect blend of everything. We need others to complete us. So, if you are sitting near someone right now, turn to that person and say these words: “I need you to complete me.” Hopefully if you are sitting near your spouse that is who you turned to. If that’s not who you turned to, then better luck with St. Patrick’s Day.
Our scripture story today does not describe a romantic context. It doesn’t even talk about a family relationship or friendship. It is about relationships in a church context, but it brings out this point about the need for differing, and even opposing, relationships in our lives, and the potential for challenge that brings.
Paul is writing the Corinthians, a church where there are more opposite personalities than perhaps any other church Paul started. There was rich and poor. There was erudite and ignorant. There was Jew and Gentile. There was slave and free. There were men and women competing for leadership. AND, there were those who said, “We follow only Apollos,” and others who said, “We follow only Paul.” And instead of seeing the opportunities and blessings of their differences, they were allowing them to separate and divide.
Of course, we would never allow differences to separate us in the church today?
David Brooks in his New York Times column this week about the impact of cultural divides in the church wrote: “Part of what’s happening in this turmoil is that people are sorting themselves into likeminded political tribes.” Then he quotes David Bailey who leads an organization that fosters reconciliation, “If you told me that people would switch churches because of (things like) masks I would have been like, ‘That’s ridiculous!”
“But it’s happening,” Brooks continues, “and it’s not just normal bickering…there is now a common desire to pummel, shame and ostracize other Christians over disagreements.”
“This is a profound moment of turmoil, pain, change and, while it’s too early to be sure, possible transformation.” (New York Times, 2/4/22)
Its those last words I want to focus on and lift the conversation out of the social mire and place it back in the context of relationships, because having people in our lives who think differently than us, and even oppose us, is a necessity. It holds the possibility of transformation.
Returning to Corinth, where it seems people were just itching for reasons to argue, Paul speaks to what had been a growing rift, people separating into camps according to the leader they supported. Again, a very foreign idea to us today, right! Some followed Apollos and some Paul. Who was Apollos?
You first read about him in the Book of Acts. When Paul first visited Corinth and started the church he mentored a couple named Priscilla and Aquila and then took them to Ephesus. When Paul left Ephesus, he put Priscilla and Aquila in charge. A young convert named Apollos came and began teaching about Jesus but all he knew was the baptism of John. What does this mean? He preached what John the Baptist did—you must repent for the king of heaven is at hand. In other words, you must change in order to receive God’s grace. Ever heard preaching like that before? If you don’t get your life figured out and straightened out, you’ll never be worthy of God?
But the truth is, Christ has come. Grace is extended. We don’t change to deserve God’s grace, it is already given. We change in response to grace. So Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos and he becomes a more informed, effective teacher and preacher who goes to Corinth and because of his persuasive abilities draws many people into the church.
But people being people, the Corinthians got caught up in which pastor they liked rather than the Savior they followed. So Paul says, “What is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.” (3:5-6) In other words, God uses their differences to help them be a better people.
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book Team of Rivals Doris Goodwin tells about the 1860 convention of the newly formed Republican Party. They were deciding among four candidates for president. Three of the candidates were well known nationally, and one of the three was heavily favored to win. But like any political process, the more they campaigned the more they found fault with each other and created enemies. The least likely to win was a lawyer from Illinois who wasn’t even holding a political office at the time, Abraham Lincoln. Imagine the shock when Lincoln won the nomination. But perhaps even more shocking was after winning the election, Lincoln put all three of his rivals on his cabinet: William Seward became Secretary of State; Salmon Chase, Secretary of Treasury; and Edward Bates, Attorney General. In the other positions of his cabinet he surrounded himself with people from the opposing party. He simply wanted the best and strongest people possible around him whether or not they were rivals. The best example may be his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Stanton used to openly oppose Lincoln and sometimes to the point of disrespect, but Lincoln never retaliated, because he valued Stanton’s mind and opinion. As a team that valued rivals, they became an unrivaled team.
Lincoln could have taken Jesus as his model. Think of the disciples. You had James and John known as the “Sons of Thunder” because of their tempers. But you also had the Disciple of Love known for his gentleness. You had Matthew the tax collector for Rome and Simon the Zealot, who was committed to the overthrow of Rome. You had mostly Galileans loyal to the Pharisees, and Judas the lone Judean loyal to Sadducees. They become a model for the church and they show us that to be better we need people different from us.
And to put it back in the realm of relationships, as the old saying goes about marriage, if two people agree on everything, one of you is unnecessary. We will never discover our fullest potential without relationships with people who are very different from us.
But when we experience differences with others the temptation is to withdraw, especially if we were made to feel that what is different about us is wrong. Now, the issue becomes about being right, and the chances of valuing what another can bring to us greatly diminishes. Add in to that equation a culture that isolates ourselves to those we agree with, and we grow very little beyond where we are right now.
This is what was happening in Corinth. The Apollos crowd thought they were right. The Paul crowd thought they were right. And Paul reframes the issue. He turns it to what God wants to do. “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (v. 8) If I can’t value the differences others bring, I’ll never grow to be as big as God can make me.
Imagine for a moment you have a tool or appliance at home that you really rely on. You couldn’t imagine doing without it, but one day it breaks down. You take into a repair shop and find out it needs a part that is no longer made. You call around to every supply store in the city and no one has it. But, you find out that someone you know has it. The trouble is, that person is someone who really gets on your nerves. You just don’t care for them. What do you do?
You could say, “I’ll just have to learn to live with that tool. As much as it meant to me, I’ll have to get along with it.” OR, you say, I’m going to go to that person and see if they will let me buy that part from them. Now, how would you treat them? When they do something that annoys you, would you roll your eyes? I doubt it. If you have a political difference will you get into a debate? Probably not. Most likely, you will treat them with respect.
What if we looked at every person as possessing something we need, even the people who are totally opposite us? What if we assumed they had something we relied on? How might that change the way we treat them?
So here’s an important question: what do you need to be more complete? What is missing for you? Whatever the strengths and dominate parts of your personality, what is missing?
--Are you a task focused person? Are you someone who is organized and can strategically get things done? You might need people persons around who challenge your relational connection.
--Are you highly relational? You could care less about the job to be done, it’s the relationships with others that counts. You may need a task person around you so you get something done.
--Are you a worrier? Guess what? You need people in your life who probably drive you crazy. They aren’t as emotional. They seem detached to you because they don’t go down the worry hole with you and fret. They will help you stay grounded.
--Are you a planner? Do you like knowing what is coming and having a plan to get there? Guess what? You need the person who drives you absolutely batty! The spontaneous person. You need someone who uses strategic plans for toilet paper. They like being free and able to pay attention to the moments.
You get the idea. The people who drives us craziest are often the ones we need the most in our lives.
And here’s the really crazy part. You don’t have to go shopping to find that person…God has probably already put people in your life who have traits and personalities opposite your own but people who gifts and personalities can compliment your own. But you might not be open to the gift of their differences.
So another question: Who are opposites already in my life?
We usually discover our differences when they collide. When someone does something very different from us, when we learn their views that are really different from us, we are tempted to redefine the relationship based on the differences, and to pull away from them. But to keep growing, to be all that God calls us to be, we have to be open to the gift their difference can bring us.
Now here’s an important caveat, and this takes a lot of discernment, just because a person is different from us doesn’t mean they will make us better. You must understand and trust that this is someone who really does care about your wellbeing. Without that, they may simply just want to manipulate or control you. To stay in a relationship where we are not being built up but just the opposite, we are being torn down, is not a place God wants us to stay. We need people who are different from us, but they also have to be people who care about us.
As Paul made clear to the Corinthians, at the end of the day, God is in the business of building us up. What are the differences in relationships we have that God can use to build you into a better person.
That could be a fun Valentine’s exercise with your spouse. What are your differences and how does God want to use those to make each other better? Our differences always have the potential to divide us, but relationships that last discover the power of embracing differences find blessing and reward.
Let me close with this story. When I lived at Lake Junaluska, NC I got to know a retired pastor named Claude Evans who was chaplain of Southern Methodist University in Dallas from 1957 until his retirement in 1982. During a good bit of his tenure there Willis Tate was president of the university and they were good friends even though they were quite different men. Claude was a highly a relational person who loved hanging out with students and was not so much a rule follower. He was this antinomian type who fit quite well on a college campus during the turbulent 60’s and 70’s. Willis Tate on the other hand was an administrator whose job whose job was to make sure the rules of the university were followed. And, to raise funds to keep the school going. But despite this, the two men enjoyed a great friendship, until one Advent.
Claude got the idea to have an Advent dance at chapel service one week. He was always looking for creative ways to keep students interested and engaged and focusing on the celebration of the season he called for a dance. Now, as I understand this story, this of course, was a time when hot pants were popular. And at one point in the events Claude was dancing on the chancel with an 18 year old girl in hot pants.
They encouraged the Dallas Morning News to send a reporter to cover the story. What better way to attract student to SMU, right? Well, the story got covered all right. Small town newspapers that didn’t even cover World War II covered this story. And the president’s office got flooded with phone calls from angry United Methodists all over the country asking what they’re doing down at SMU. Willis Tate called Claude to his office, and they got into a bitter dispute and it severed the friendship.
Some time later, Claude took at retreat where the leader used Gestalt therapy. One exercise they did was called the double chair exercise. You put two chairs facing each other and pretend that someone you are angry with is sitting across from you and you talk with them. Claude volunteered.
He sat down and began giving Willis Tate a piece of his mind. He explained how wounded he was by his friend’s lack of understanding and support. When he finally got quiet and it was clear he had nothing else to say, the director said, “Now, I want you to change chairs. And this time I want you to pretend you are Willis Tate and respond to yourself. So he did.
He sat in the other chair and was quiet for the longest time. Finally he said, “Now Claude, you know I love those kids as much as you do. I love SMU, but Claude sometimes you get a little carried away. You do things because I know you love those kids, but you might consider all the implications.”
It is said that when Claude returned home to Dallas, soon after a friendship was restored.
“What is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants who helped you…”